Religion 804: Class and Economics

This summer I’ve undertaken a readings course in 20th century American Religion with Dr. Sharon Leon. The next few posts will include my own thoughts as I work through each of the readings and prepare for my minor field exam.

In our first set of readings we covered To Serve God and Walmart by Bethany Moreton, One Nation Under God by Kevin Kruse, and Redeeming Time by William Mirola. While we organized them under a theme of class and economics, these readings varied in meaningful ways. Moreton and Kruse developed complementary overviews of the rise of the religious right in the second half of the twentieth century, both examining the increasing influence of faith in politics and economics across this period with differing emphases. Mirola’s work, a study of the eight-hour movement in Chicago, stood apart in time period (1866-1912), approach (sociological history), and subject matter (the emergence of progressive Protestantism in relation to labor movements). Despite differences in subject and actors, these works are useful in identifying the role of religion in locating actors in social and political spaces. Below, I will put Kruse and Moreton into conversation as I consider each one historically and historiographically.

Kruse’s work directly argues against the existing historiography to assert that the Christian Right did not emerge as a result of Communism or Cold War anxieties, but rather as a result of opposition to the New Deal. The confluence of faith and politics, Kruse suggests, started in the 1930s as corporate Conservatives enlisted clergymen to contest the New Deal welfare state. While FDR and others linked the New Deal to Social Gospel concerns for “the public good,” Conservatives undertook a public relations effort to contest this challenge government expansion. This merging of clergy and corporatism resulted in a blend of American individualism and free-enterprise that combined Christianity and capitalism. Though Kruse appears skeptical about the degree to which business leaders legitimately held religious concerns or whether this represented a public relations campaign to protect corporate interests, he demonstrates that over the next three decades that conservative evangelical Protestants asserted influence over the “rhetoric and rituals of public religion” [Kruse 292]

Popular leaders asserted political and economic authority through intimate social networks, effecting a confluence of “piety and patriotism.” [Kruse 73] Figures like Abraham Vereide, Billy Graham, and Dwight Eisenhower blended politics, economics, and religion through several forms of public prayer; prayer breakfasts, revivals, and prayers at cabinet meetings. These efforts “popularized… [and] politicized” public prayer. [Kruse 38] Through public appearances, radio broadcasts, tv programs, and written publications these figures prayed and sermonized to a larger public, marshalling ministers and lay people as a wave of legislation asserted Christian religion to be at the core of American identities.

These processes, which largely took place during the mid-1950s, demarcated a period “when Americans underwent an incredible transformation in how they understood the role of religion in public life.” [Kruse xiv] Kruse handles this transformation with a great deal of nuance- while he does seem skeptical, he is not dismissive. Religion in One Nation Under God is largely a means of positioning oneself, ideologically and socially, but not necessarily cosmologically. Kruse, or perhaps his actors, are less interested in cosmology than campaigning. He makes excellent use of primary source material from dozens of archival collections. The scope of his work is impressive.

In To Serve God and Wal-Mart Moreton attempts a similar project. In this work Wal-Mart serves as the centerpiece for uncovering the developing notion of Christian free enterprise and the rise of the Christian Right in the second half of the twentieth century. Moreton explores the way that Wal-mart negotiated a transition from a small store in the Ozarks to one of the most prominent corporations in the world. Exploring this shift in terms of business practices and ideologies she is able to identify the overlap of religion and corporate culture in both corporate leadership and consumers. The book reveals how Wal-Mart branded itself in terms of “corporate populism” and promoted conservative religious values through the recruitment of management from evangelical colleges and the promotion of gendered hierarchy in stores. [Moreton 13, 33]

The story is often one of contradictions, that the big-box retailer grew in an anti-monopoly/anti-corporate region by creating the image of the store as a mom-and-pop operation, for instance. But while Moreton is critical and highlights these contradictions, she is less interested in lambasting the corporation. Rather she seeks to understand how Christianity and commerce came to be tied together, how Walmart aligned consumption with faith. Moreton emphasizes that the growth of Wal-Mart reflects a unique blend of rural Southern, conservative Christian beliefs with free-market capitalism that appealed to middle-class consumers.

This exploration of the joining together of religion and commerce in the Wal-Mart model is useful in two regards. First, the broader exploration of Wal-Mart’s adoption of innovative business practices and techniques reveals the ways in which conservative Christian ideals were incorporated and disseminated. From hiring practices that reinforced gender hierarchies, to the reconfiguring consumerism as an act of Christian service, and the evangelization of Wal-Mart among college-age students in the US and abroad, these practices contributed to a much broader adoption of evangelical free-market values. Second, the political influence exerted by Sun Belt entrepreneurs provides us with access to the religious leaders and legislators that both publicly and privately promoted those values in policies and institutions of higher education.

In both regards, Moreton offers convincing arguments, making excellent use of her source materials. Her use of internal documents (company newsletters and reports, oral histories) and broadly disseminated public documents (newspaper articles and reports) enables her to examine the subject from multiple angles. Though the “consumer” as an individual is often obscured, Moreton calls to the foreground Wal-Mart’s corporate structure, from clerk to management, to a broader sense of the corporation’s influence internationally.

Putting these works together highlights differences in historiographical approach and interpretation. Kruse’s work focuses on the period between 1930 and 1970, where Moreton’s work is largely between 1930 and 1990. While both assert an increased connection between politics, economics, and religion in the second half of the twentieth century, Kruse more strongly links this rise to a response to New Deal policies, while Moreton demonstrates that some business benefited from the New Deal and that, particularly in international efforts, business did express concerns about the threats of Communism and the Cold War. Kruse’s work, with its focus on intellectual shifts and national politics is also significantly different than Moreton’s which traces the subject through the lens of a single business. Although both are interested in the broad shift toward Christian Conservatism, Kruse emphasizes public religion, legislation, and other outward forms of expression, while Moreton looks at internal expressions within the policies and politics of an institution.

Despite differences in project, the texts frequently overlapped in their discussion of figures and events. They were also similar in the voices that were missing. Though class plays a significant role in Kruse’s analysis, a nuanced reading of race is largely absent. Moreton, similarly, cannot entirely address the experiences and reactions of lower- and middle-class consumers, but focusing on the experiences of management available in the source material. Although both books emphasize Evangelical Protestantism, other religious faiths are not addressed. It should be noted that their reliance on documents and organizational publications may have produced these gaps. Overall, however, both these texts provide powerful insight into the shift of political and religious affiliation in the second half of the twentieth century.

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